East Timor to Tampa Bay

New Community Tampa Bay chief has solid human rights chops.

click to enlarge FIGHTING INTOLERANCE: Can Birgit Van Hout make a dent in intolerance and inequity in Tampa Bay? - Wayne Garcia
Wayne Garcia
FIGHTING INTOLERANCE: Can Birgit Van Hout make a dent in intolerance and inequity in Tampa Bay?

Birgit Van Hout has resettled refugees in her native Belgium, organized elections in strife-filled East Timor, worked to establish democracy in Bosnia and aided United Nations peacekeepers in Guatemala. She has worked with the U.N.'s Human Right Office on international efforts to fight racism and discrimination and was a monitor for Palestinian parliamentary elections.

The activist's latest job is leading Community Tampa Bay, an organization working to stamp out racism and intolerance, and fight for social and economic justice.

Makes Bosnia look easy.

Van Hout became executive director in April 2005, and was immediately thrown into budget crunches and an employee lay-off. In a 2005 news article, she wondered aloud whether it was time to question the relevance of her group, then called the National Conference for Community and Justice (and previous to that, the National Conference of Christians and Jews).

A year later, with her organization's name changed to Community Tampa Bay, Van Hout says she is still finding her way through the area's myriad issues to learn about the depth of the problems here. In other words, she is still doing more listening than talking.

"The most important obstacle we face in dealing with this problem is denial," she said. "People talk about diversity, but when it comes to [actually] talking about it ..."

Despite the fact that the area ranks No. 1 in the state in hate crimes — in part, Van Hout claims, because police agencies are more diligent about reporting them here — Tampa Bay is not much different than anywhere else in the world, Van Hout said. There are challenges everywhere to create an atmosphere of acceptance of cultural, ethnic and religious differences.

She cites some immediate concerns for the organization: "the growing gap between the haves and have nots;" the fact that two-thirds of teens report being verbally harassed or physically assaulted in the past year; 90 percent of gay students are afraid to go to school; and African-American families' median household income is half that of white families, with Hispanics falling somewhere in the middle.

But the biggest shock to her system when she moved to Tampa Bay two years ago was the residential segregation. As she and her family looked for an apartment, they found quickly that there are all-white complexes and all-black complexes but very few that had mixed cultures, races and ethnicities.

The way she sees it, that segregation, coupled with schools moving away from court-ordered desegregation, means that many children in Tampa Bay are never exposed to people outside of their own race or culture.

Van Hout's job now is to connect the organization better with the corporate community and to expand its youth-oriented Anytown program that teaches tolerance. For more information on the organization or ways to help, go the www.communitytampabay.org.

CARRIE QUITS: Carrie Wadlinger is getting out while the getting is good.

The head of the Pinellas County Democratic Party has announced her intention to step down as of July 15 from a job that, frankly, no one in their right mind should want. A combination of family concerns, fatigue, a sense of accomplishment and the ability to speak louder outside the Democratic Executive Committee are to blame.

Wadlinger was not critical of anyone in explaining her decision, but she alluded to the pressure of trying to hold a disjointed party together.

"As chair, I hadn't envisioned my role being as an arbitrator and mediator," Wadlinger said in a telephone interview. She would have preferred to spend all her time getting Democrats elected instead.

And as DEC chairwoman, she couldn't take sides or speak out against those in the party with whom she disagreed. Wadlinger said, "I did pretty good keeping my mouth shut."

But she realized in the past weeks that she was changing in the role — and she didn't like it.

"I wasn't acting like myself," she said. "I just was not being true to myself anymore. In the first year and half, I accomplished everything that I wanted to do." That included restocking the Democrats' bank account, upgrading technology, organizing grassroots troops and sprucing up the party headquarters.

With those goals accomplished, and with elections coming fast, Wadlinger faced unpleasant work trying to hold the party together as the bullets start flying.

"It's not that I can't do it, but I don't want to do it," Wadlinger said. "I need to be able to speak up when I want to speak up. I need to get good people elected. I passed up some job opportunities that were very, very interesting. I'm going to stay in politics. I really feel relieved that I can finally say what I want to say and do what I want to do."

SUCCEEDING CARRIE: Pinellas Democratic Party vice chairman Arlin Briley is the first out of the box to seek Wadlinger's chairmanship.

"There has been much intrigue stirred by her announcement to resign, but I wish to assure everybody that in the last year and a half we've been building our team strength, and I am committed to seeing the team effort through the elections," Briley said in an e-mail to the Planet. "I believe I'm ready for the job and that my candidacy offers a seamless transition."

SPECIOUS WATCH: After Hillsborough County Commissioner Ronda Storms wondered whether the word "specious" was part of a liberal game plan, since she was called specious three times in three weeks by liberals, we asked readers what their favorite overworked piece of political lingo was. Judy Robinson phoned us to suggest that hers was "robust," as in "the robust economy" or "robust troop strength." She longs for the days when robust only referred to a cup of coffee.

But our fave came via our Blurbex blog, from David Hershman:

"As for my favorite overused political word, I'll have to go with THE LIBERAL MEDIA. Considering that a handful of corporations — all proudly Republican — own the overwhelming majority of TV and radio stations, as well as newspapers, it's a term that's overdue for retirement. I mean, sure, 99 percent of news reporters want to work overtime digging for the facts behind the official story just like the ULTRA-LIBERAL Village Voice. The Voice, of course, is now owned by a decidedly Republican-supportive company out of Arizona, which is buying up every weekly newspaper it can, and weeding out the LEFTIST, PINKO writers and editorial boards. But thank a fundamentalist, Christian, vengeful God that the day of media questioning authority is finally over. Happy days are here again."

Political Whore can be reached by e-mail at [email protected], by telephone at 813-739-4805 or on our blog at www.blurbex.com.

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